restricted access 1. The Politics and Practices of Colonialism
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15 C h a p t e r 1 The Politics and Practices of Colonialism Black anticolonial rhetoric emerged in the context of America’s history with colonialism. What “colonialism” was (is) and America’s relationship to it are issues of public and scholarly debate today. This chapter explores colonialism from both historical and theoretical perspectives in a search to understand the implications of colonialist discourse for domestic rhetorical cultures. My purpose is to provide an operational definition of colonialism and a historical and political context for the emergence of colonial practices not only relative to the United States but also in the broader frameworks of imperialism and empire. Contemporary scholars of discourse study colonialism primarily through the abstract and often decontextualed notion of the “postcolonial .” Postcolonial studies of literature have paid considerable attention to the development of subjectivity in the context of imperialism, but the historical, political, and cultural dimensions of colonialism have received less scholarly scrutiny.1 Abdul JanMohamed argues that this scholarly focus on the textual and psychological dimensions of postcoloniality has deemphasized the historical realities of colonialism and the asymmetry of colonial power in practice. He suggests a more contextual approach to the dynamics of colonialism, arguing that we “can better understand colonialist discourse . . . through analysis that maps its ideological function in relation to actual imperialist practices.”2 R. Radhakrishnan argues that studies of colonialism and postcoloniality have fetishized postcolonial deterritorialization through theoretical categories like “diaspora ” while paying little attention to the actual practices of colonialism 16 Ch apt er 1 or the meaning of diaspora. This aestheticization of a particular kind of “difference,” Radhakrishnan asserts, is “completely at odds with the actual experience of difference as undergone by diasporic peoples.”3 Rather than relying on atemporal and often abstract theoretical constructs of identity, a more useful understanding of colonialism and its legacy may be possible through the study of historically specific political and rhetorical practices. There are several benefits to be gained from following the advice of these scholars. First, attention to the historical and political dimensions of colonialism respects the complexity and variety of experiences within that system and their articulation over time. Second, this critical approach complicates postcolonial theory by encouraging scholars to attend to the dynamics of a particular colonial moment. For example, much postcolonial theory is derived from the close textual analysis of literature; however , one might legitimately question whether the political economy of literature’s production leaves room for the full texture of colonial experience , especially among a populace that may have to struggle just to obtain the basic necessities of everyday life. The study of colonialism in the Great Depression, for example, would be inadequate if one did not investigate a variety of texts, genres, and media that held cultural and political authority at the time. In this sense, a historically grounded approach to colonialism extends the field of discursive practices that interpret colonial experience beyond the realm of the bourgeois intellectual. In order better to understand what colonialism is and its relationship to U.S. racial politics, this chapter explores the historical emergence of colonialism, investigates the political and ideological practices that constitute colonial power, and speculates about how colonialism has influenced black rhetorical culture. Imperialism and the Emergence of Colonialism Scholars in diverse fields have debated the temporal parameters of the “colonial”; some suggest that colonialism began in 1492 and continues today, while others argue for the necessity to draw a distinction between imperialism as a general attitude of European expansion and colonialism as a specific economic and political practice.4 Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman persuasively argue that imperialism refers to the extension of capitalist modes of production to precapitalist regions of the globe and The Politics and Practices of Colonialism 17 that colonialism refers to a historical moment when the importance of state power to this process increased, causing a period of European “conquest and direct control of other people’s land.”5 In this sense, the modern economic and political project of colonialism was both a period and a set of practices in the ongoing processes of Western imperialism. From this perspective, a perspective I adopt, the larger project of Western imperialism began in the sixteenth century with the marked increase in European exploitation of resources across the globe. Technological innovations in shipbuilding, astronomy, and cartography created greater intimacy between Europe and the Americas, Asia, and Africa, and accelerated the diffusion and counterdiffusion of a wide spectrum of cultural influences and material goods.6...


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Subject Headings

  • African Americans -- Race identity -- History -- 20th century.
  • African Americans -- Attitudes -- History -- 20th century.
  • African diaspora.
  • Anti-imperialist movements -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Rhetoric -- Political aspects -- United States.
  • American prose literature -- African American authors -- History and criticism.
  • Haiti -- History -- American occupation, 1915-1934 -- Social aspects.
  • Labor movement -- Liberia -- History -- 20th century.
  • Italo-Ethiopian War, 1935-1936 -- Social aspects.
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